Post Office by Charles Bukowski

I recently finished Post Office from Charles Bukowski, and I can’t emphasize how much I enjoyed this nasty little novel, so special thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal for steering me towards my first Bukowski.

A few weeks ago, I read Memoirs-of-a-Good-for-Nothing–the story of a 19th century happy-go-lucky slacker who’s basically booted out into the world by his frustrated father. When I finished Post Office, I wondered if we could also say that its anti-hero, Henry Chinaski, qualifies for the title of good-for-nothing. Well probably not as Chinaski does manage to stick it out at the post office for 12 miserable years, but in some ways Chinaski might qualify as a good-for-nothing as he doesn’t ‘amount’ to anything in the sense of ‘getting ahead’ in the world. On the surface, the two books are complete opposites, but then again after consideration, are they fundamentally so different? Both books chart the progress (or lack thereof) of their subjects. Memoirs of a Good-For-Nothing is the story of an eternally optimistic loafer while the protagonist of Post Office takes an acidic, sardonic view of life, but when the books conclude, both men are largely unchanged.

Back to the book.

The anti-hero of Bukowski’s novel is Chinaski, and I absolutely loved this character.  He’s antisocial, crude, profane and misogynistic. The list of Chinaski’s bad qualities is endless, but then again he does love his dog and shows kindness to an alcoholic ex lover. Most of the novel gravitates around Chinaski’s job at the post office, and when he’s not at the post office, Chinaski is at the track or bedding some new woman.

It all starts from a wrong impression:

“It was Christmas season and I learned from the drunk up the hill, who did the trick every Christmas, that they would hire damned near anybody, and so I went and the next thing I knew I had this leather sack on my back and was hiking around at my leisure. What a job, I thought. Soft! They only gave you a block or two and if you managed to finish, the regular carrier would give you another block to carry, or maybe you’d go back in and the soup would give you another, but you just took your time and shoved those Xmas cards in the slots.” 

Chinaski meets an overly friendly, buxom female customer who wants more than just a Xmas card delivered. This encounter impresses Chinaski who concludes:

“But I couldn’t help thinking, god, all these mailmen do is drop their letters and get laid. This is the job for me, oh yes yes yes.”

He starts as a temp and immediately bumps heads with the  “soup” Jonstone AKA The Stone. While Chinaski at first swallows the party-line that the post office is a decent  job with great benefits, from his descriptions it appears as though the post office employee rules and regulations have been created by a sadistic madman. Someone should hang a sign over the post office door that reads:  “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” because it really does seem as though Chinaski has died and gone to post office hell. The average day at the post office is replete with mindless Sisyphean tasks while Chinaski battles the elements, the dogs and the people who seem hell-bent on making his life impossible. Bukowski captures the sheer drudgery, the mind-numbingly boring tasks, the petty office politics, and the endless rules that range from how often Chinaski can use the toilet to where he can place his hat.

But scrap any idea of Chinaski being a victim. When he gets off work, he drinks all night long, and Chinaski’s normal state of affairs is to begin the day with a hangover. It’s hard to feel sorry for Chinaski in spite of the fact that he hates his job, and this is because our anti-hero is always funny and he isn’t out to please. It never occurs to him to worry about what people think of him. Ah, yes… it’s so refreshing to read this character’s vision of the world.

It’s with women that Chinaski is arguably his most reprehensible. When the novel begins he’s with a  “shackjob”  –-a woman whose absence (she goes to work) frees Chinaski for his opportunistic sexual encounters. To Chinaski women are objects–no more, no less. They are mostly described by their body parts, and to Chinaski, the bigger the better. Here’s an exchange between Chinaski and his  “shackjob” Betty who finally decides she’s had just as much as she can take:

“It’s over, she said, I’m not sleeping with you another night.”

“All right. Keep your pussy. It’s not that great anyway.”

There’s a sense that Betty breaks off the relationship because of its unconventionality rather than Chinaski’s perpetual infidelities, and indeed Chinaski’s lack of conformity is a theme that continues throughout this extremely funny novel. It’s worth pointing out that while Chinaski treats the women who cross his path quite abominably, he, in turn, is also objectified. This is certainly true at the post office where he is treated as little more than a machine, but then again the women in Chinaski’s life–Betty, Joyce and Fay seem to view him as some sort of accessory to their various self-images. Why do they express surprise or frustration with Chinaski when the relationships fail? After all, it’s hardly as though he ever puts on a good front for anyone. With Chinaski, what you see is what you get, and whoever decides to be his “shackjob” of the moment must either be deranged, insanely optimistic, or in a state of some sort of chemical dependency.

Bukowski apparently referred to his own live-in girlfriend as a “shackjob,” and he also suffered years at the post office, so it should come as no great surprise that the novel is largely autobiographical. It certainly rings with an authenticity that’s hard to beat.  

Here’s Chinaski on the idea of “security” with the post office:

“Security? You could get security in jail. Three squares and no rent to pay, no utilities, no income tax, no child support. No license fees. No traffic tickets. No drunk driving raps. No losses at the race track. Free medical attention. comradeship with those with similar interests. Church. Roundeye. Free burial.”

Of course, those who’ve ever actually been in prison would probably disagree with Chinaski’s assessment of the ‘security’ of prison life. So here’s Chinaski discussing the hollowed-out shells of men after a decade or so of working as a clerk at the post office:

“They either melted or they got fat, huge, especially around the ass and the belly. It was the stool and the same motion and the same talk. And there I was, dizzy spells and pains in the arms, neck, chest, evrywhere. I slept all day resting up for the job. On weekends I had to drink in order to forget it. I had come in weighing 185 lbs. Now I weighed 223 pounds. All you moved was your right arm.”

Bukowski’s work falls under the mantle of Dirty Realism–although I’ve also seen it described as Transgressive Fiction. Post Office is not the only novel to feature Chinaski. Factotum,  Women, Ham on Rye, and Hollywood are Bukowski novels which are narrated by Chinaski, and Chinaski also appears in Pulp, Bukowksi’s last novel.

On a final note, in the spirit of liberation I made a point of stopping my postman, and I showed him the novel and suggested that he reads it as soon as possible. I wonder if I’ll ever see him again or if he’ll read it and head for the nearest race track?

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16 Comments

Filed under Bukowski Charles

16 responses to “Post Office by Charles Bukowski

  1. leroyhunter

    Good stuff guy. Between this and Max’s review I’m rethinking my relative lack of interest in Bukowski. I must have picked this (and Hollywood, and Ham on Rye) up dozens of times in bookshops only to leave it back down. Funny, as I really like Fante for example.

    Nice touch with your own postman, although I wonder if he’d thank you for suggesting such an unflattering portrait of his métier…

  2. Such a great review, whether or not I ever get around to reading the book. And, I love the retro-but-not looking cover.

  3. Nick

    Funny I read this book around a month ago.
    Probably because of Max too., though a friend of mine had already warmly recommended it.

    I really liked it. It’s funny as hell… and sadly probably quite realistic of Bukowski’s life at the time. Isn’t it his first book?

    I guess I don’t really have much respect for women because I remember myself rooting a little for the guy… probably because he’s quite cynical.

  4. Leroy: Bukowski was one of those names off in the periphery–someone I’d heard of. A name I recognised, but also a name I was not interested in. Now I want to read ’em all.

    My last postman (who mysteriously disappeared after an encounter with a pitbull) frequently complained about putting in 70 hours a week, so perhaps the ‘real’ post office measures up to Bukowski’s fictional version.

    Gummie: The cover is clever really (brighter than in my picture) as it just shows THE ARM–no face, no individual, a point that the author makes throughout this subversive tale.

    Nick: Everyone in the novel is guilty of objectifying the other characters in their lives, so Chinaski is not alone on the score. Good move on the part of the author, I think. Chinaski objectifies women as they objectify him. They are all little more than body parts. The post office is the worst offender when it comes to dehumanising people. You remember the character, a postman who hands out sweets to children on his route, and he’s accused of being a child molester. That’s what breaking out of the mould gets you.

    I rooted for Chinaski too. His last shackjob, Fay is appalling. And yes it’s his first book.

  5. He’s hard not to root for, as Guy notes he shows compassion when he runs into an ex now going to seed. His honesty somehow makes hiim likeable too (on the page, in real life Chinaski would borrow money from you and hit on you if you were a woman and hit on your girlfriend if you weren’t).

    I’m glad you liked it Guy, I was really impressed by it. By its realism and passion and also by its depiction of work in a way few writers achieve, since all too many writers don’t know about any work other than writing. It’s refreshing to read a realistic account of a shitty and monotonous job that isn’t then boring on the page. It’s an achievement too on his part to communicate the boredom without boring.

  6. I wish I had time to read all the books I find on fellow-bloggers post. This one is just up my street – did you ever read The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt? Some synergies there I think. I am ashamed to say I’ve never read a book by Bukowski but will try to correct this before too long

  7. leroyhunter

    A good while ago I read a curious essay by Jonathan Franzen in his “How to be Alone” collection, about the travails of the Chicago-area postal system. His perspective would seem to be the diametric opposite of Bukowski’s, ie a dissatisfied middle-class customer of the post office, but he highlighted some of the same things: tyrannical & obtuse bureaucracy; waste; moral turpitude; the existance of the postal system as a closed, almost self-referential world.

    Franzen is a divisive figure (it seems to me) but he can write, and this was an interesting and wry piece. As Max says about Bukowski, making something like this interesting, readable, funny is quite a skill. It shows people trying (failing) to get something complex & unwieldy to work properly.

  8. Hello Tom: welcome back. No I haven’t read the Shoe Tester book but since we are on the subject of rotten jobs, I’m thinking the subject matter must be the same. I’ll check it out. Thanks.

  9. Leroy: I agree re: Bukowski’s skill. It takes talent to present your boring job in that fashion and to make fun of it at the same time. He must have had quite a different view of life. Could another writer have done the same?

    A while back I read a wonderful first novel called Apathy by Paul Neilan. It was hilariously funny and has the main character working in a cubicle inside a large office. He passes the time by falling asleep in the bathroom and building paperclip structures. The book was one of the funniest things I’d read in a long time.

  10. leroyhunter

    I think you mentioned Apathy on a post or comment before Guy, certainly sounds like it’s worth looking into.

    Am interested as well in your mention of Dirty Realism. Do you think it’s a useful label? I have my doubts. Have you ever read A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley? I’ve seen it referred to as an early example of this school, usually lined up with Trocchi, Selby Jr etc (none of whom I’ve read by the way).

    It’s about an alcoholic, depressive, football-obsessed guy who is trying to survive in the world and believes he has a great book in him (which turns out to be the one we’re reading). It’s excellent, funny but very sad as well. Well worth a look based on the qualities you warmed to in Chinaski.

  11. I haven’t really delved into the Dirty Realism label much. I am not a Raymond Carver fan, for example.

    I think the Dirty helps, but the Realism part doesn’t do much for me. Probably because Realism conjures up so many different ideas. The other label is Transgressive and I think that’s rather interesting–especially since it transcends a particular time frame.

    I’ve meant to read Last Exit to Brooklyn for years (Selby jr).

    Will take a look at A Fan’s Notes. Thanks for the tip.

  12. I should add that I want to read Nelson Algren before Selby jr as I have one of Algren’s novels on my shelf gathering dust

  13. leroyhunter

    So I got around to this over the last couple of days and it would not be an exaggeration to say I laughed my ass off. Great stuff.
    The scene with him in the elevator with all the black guys discussing the Watts riots is priceless. “I thought it best not to offer a comment at that time.” Indeed.
    I also loved the young nut Janko who nearly sends him mad with his endless rants, ending in the immortal assertion “VAN GOGH’S BROTHER GAVE HIM FREE PAINTS!”

    Reading back through the comments I see Apathy again – damn, looks like I have to get to that as well.

  14. leroyhunter

    Did you ever see the Matt Dillon film of Factotum? I haven’t myself but thought it looked like it might be good. Although Dillon isn’t my first idea of what a wino might look like.

  15. No I haven’t seen it, but I’ll see if I can rent it. Thanks for the tip.

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